The gay rights cases, in perspective

Dr. Paul Melchert, left, was interrupted by his son, Emmett, as he addressed the media while his partner James Zimerman held Emmett's twin brother, Gabriel, during a  Feb. 27 news conference in St. Paul, Minn., where lawmakers introduced a bill to legalize gay marriage in that state.

Jim Mone/Associated Press

Dr. Paul Melchert, left, was interrupted by his son, Emmett, as he addressed the media while his partner James Zimerman held Emmett's twin brother, Gabriel, during a Feb. 27 news conference in St. Paul, Minn., where lawmakers introduced a bill to legalize gay marriage in that state.

On Tuesday, two young men walked past our car, holding hands — college students basking in a spirited conversation. Their enthusiasm was infectious, even watching from behind the wheel, especially as one of the young men removed his sweatshirt, as if hoping to advance a reluctant spring.

“Do you think Justice Roberts will vote for gay marriage?” my 9-year-old son asked as he watched the two teenagers pass by. He had been absorbing the recent news, or his parents’ conversations, but the question itself exposed so much. There was no inquiry into why the boys were holding hands or what it means for boys to like boys. It wasn’t just because we live in a progressive state, though that doesn’t hurt. To a 9-year-old, the Supreme Court’s hearing on gay marriage was like a sporting event. A vote up or down, like choosing a winner in the NCAA basketball tournament, is just a game. Reality was walking by.


The historic shift in acceptance of gay marriage is obviously a generational one, separating those under 40 from those above it. But what about those much, much younger? What can’t be changed by either the law or the high court is just how different the sense of “normal” is for today’s children, who are coming of age in a world where the gay rights movement has focused on the most conventional institutions of all: marriage and family.

Much has been written about whether the experience of children being raised by gay parents is “normal.” But do any children actually view any set of parents as normal? Almost universally, children are sometimes awed, often bored, and too often embarrassed by their parents. In their world, moms love moms, dads love dads, and moms and dads love each other; but we all seem a little off-kilter to them.

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There can be little doubt that the Supreme Court arguments on gay marriage are important and their outcome will be historic. But, even as a lawyer and one who believes in this cause, I just couldn’t muster the breathless anticipation that led to this week’s hearings. The world has already turned on this issue. The court cases seemed to exist in their own gossipy bubble. Let’s face it: The presence of Chief Justice John Roberts’s gay cousin at the court isn’t really going to change the result.

When the arguments actually began, it was clear that the court wasn’t about to match the overheated expectations of the many watchers. They seemed dejected. Maybe, after all the war-gaming of the arguments at last year’s hearing on Obamacare, the media observers weren’t inclined to jump to any conclusions this time. Words like “curious” and “confused” are all we got from the many reporters waiting outside, while the justices themselves focused on technical issues like who has proper standing to sue. (But so what? Technical rules are what separates our courts from every street-corner pontificator.)

The gay marriage movement is, in some ways, about reinforcing technicalities and embracing conventions. For couples with luck, means, and a steady hand, nothing is quite as conventional as getting married or raising children. Of course love is essential, but the daily rhythm is a matter of logistics. It is Saturday mornings on a soccer field, a Tuesday pot-luck class breakfast, and daily arguments over turning off the Wii console.


The marriage debate is already over for our children. If the trajectory of polling continues as it has, in places as diverse as Massachusetts and Mississippi, acceptance of gay marriage is a foregone conclusion. This applies to the children of heterosexual parents as much as those of homosexual parents. My hockey-playing son watches a gay father talk with the chain-smoking referee at the rink, and condemns only one of them.

What Roberts and the court will do is of immediate importance to the cause of gay rights. But I can’t help thinking that there already are kids being raised in what opponents of gay marriage call “normal” households who don’t view them as so normal at all, or any more normal than the two college boys walking down the street who might one day have a child of their own.

Juliette Kayyem can be reached at jkayyem@globe.com and Twitter @juliettekayyem.
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